By Valle Dwight, LD Contributing Writer
By Valle Dwight, LD Contributing Writer
When my son was in the first grade, I spent weeks waking at 2:00 a.m. thinking about how to stop the boy who was bullying him. My mind would churn endlessly with ways to handle what had become our bully problem. So far, nothing was working. I'd talked to his lovely teacher and she promised to keep an eye out, but so far she’d seen nothing out of the ordinary in the classroom.
No adults on the playground had seen anything amiss either, she told me. I'd even called the boy's mother and suggested the four of us get together and try to work things out. (Knowing what I know now about bullying, forcing a meeting between the bully and the bullied is a big no-no.) The mom demurred, saying that she thought the boys should work things out on their own.
A futile campaign
Sigh. Looking back, I think I should have done things very differently (relentlessly persisting with the school), but we were brand-new to the school and I didn't want to cause too much of a fuss. So it went for months, my futile, much-too-subtle campaign to make the bully stop.
But nothing seemed to stop the reports from my son when I picked him up from school. Dylan* (not his real name) had pushed him during four square, that Dylan had knocked him over during recess line-up, that Dylan had said my son couldn't play with him and his friends, that Dylan had said he didn't want to be seen with him because other kids would think he was a loser. One day when my son said that "Dylan ran into my fist," I secretly applauded my boy, except that – because of a no-tolerance policy – they both got into serious trouble from the principal.
When rationality fails, be irrational
Usually by 3:00 a.m., when all rational and civilized ideas to help my son ran their course, my ideas would become more…irrational and uncivilized. I will get the boy alone, in a dark alley (we don't have alleys in San Francisco, but this is a revenge fantasy, so I get some poetic license here) glare at him in the most terrifying way possible, mumble something about broken kneecaps, and with a profusion of apologies and tears he'd swear that he'd never, ever lay a hand on or hurt my son's feelings ever again. (There's a fabulous scene in the TV show Parenthood, when Kristina, whose son has Asperger's, does just that, frightening the bejesus out of her son's bully, and for good measure, insulting his Justin Bieber haircut.)
So when I just read that a father in Riverside, California, obtained a restraining order against a fourth-grade boy who pulled a knife on his son, my reaction was, "You go, Dad!" The knife-wielding boy had been suspended for five days, but the father reported that the school hadn't responded sufficiently to his complaints. The father knew that when the bully boy returned to school, his "terrified" son would still be facing a threatening and violent classmate.
Stopping the bully when no one else will
Experts on bullies and bullying say that the bully also deserves our empathy (as I know first-hand; I've since gotten to know the boy who bullied my son and have come to see he's a great kid who was dealing with his own issues) and that it's the adults' job to get to the heart of what a child bullies other children and do everything possible to make it stop. But if the adults in the room aren't making it stop, then you do what it takes to keep your child safe.
Going rogue, as I fantasized about doing when nothing else was working, isn't the answer. But given the stories and statistics about violence and bullying in America (here are some sobering stats to keep you up at 2:00 a.m. for example, 282,000 middle schoolers are attacked in class every month), if it means taking out a restraining order to make sure the school, bully's parents, and the bully take this more seriously than a mere suspension, then more power to him.
What do you think? Did this Dad go too far? Is there a better way to deal with a bully who threatens your child?
By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
Can a six-year-old be suspended for sexual assault? In Hercules, CA, the answer is yes. The question, however, is whether it’s sane.
Schools need to be safe – there’s no question about that. To see cases of kids bullying other kids, you only have to open your eyes (or read here, or watch here). But in searching for a way to deal with bullying, some educators are going too far. Zero-tolerance policies, for instance, can be used to punish the victim who finally fights back, or cause principals to seriously overreact. I’m no fan of ‘kids will be kids’ as an answer to bullying behavior – but it seems the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another.
Case in point: the six-year-old who was suspended for “sexual assault” (that phrase was written in his record by the principal). An article by Scott James tells the story well, but essentially it goes like this: two boys were playing tag at recess, and one boy’s hand touched or grazed the other’s upper thigh (or maybe the groin – it’s unclear). That boy was suspended. The official write-up: “Committed or attempted to commit a sexual assault or sexual battery.”
The suspended child’s mom was confused, so she turned to her local online parenting group, which is known for its active community and abundance of advice. Her child, she says, was playing tag. “He doesn’t know what he did wrong,” she says. She worried that this language in her son’s permanent record would follow him for life. After getting supportive responses about the principal being out of line and hearing similar stories of suspensions for hugging, she hired a lawyer. Now, her child’s record has been expunged and he’s been transferred to a new school.
A couple of interesting facts that play into this: 1) In California, kids need to be in at least fourth grade for the “intent” for such an act. 2) As one of James’ sources, a child psychologist, noted, it’s quite normal and common for kids to touch each other on the genitals out of curiosity. He stressed that it’s a cause for concern if the behavior continues after he’s told it’s inappropriate. But it doesn’t sound like anyone (principal or parent) had this conversation with the boy. (His own mom says he doesn’t know why he’s been punished.)
In the worst case scenario, this child did inappropriately and purposefully touch the other child in a bullying or victimizing capacity. But even in this case, the "perpetrator" is six. SIX! More likely, though, this child was inordinately punished by an overreacting principal. Either way: did anyone learn anything here? After all, this did happen at school.
By Carol Lloyd
Did you hear? There's now cold, hard research confirming what the Dilbert set have long known: meetings make you stupid. What's more, being ranked or assigned a status within a group can have a particularly pernicious effect on our grey matter. A new study -- led by a team of researchers at California Institute of Technology with four other institutions -- found that IQs can drop precipitously in group settings.
In the experiment 70 people were given paper-and-pencil IQ tests. They were then divided into similarly scoring groups of five. Seated with the group, each participant was then given a second IQ test, this time on a computer. After each question, individuals would get instant feedback from the screen showing how well they were doing compared to the group as a whole and to one other individual in the group. Initially, everyone performed worse on the test. But as the test continued, some test takers managed to improve, while others continued to perform worse than they had on their paper-and-pencil IQ tests.
IQ and anxiety of influence
In the end, the IQ of the lower performing test takers (the non-improvers) dropped an average of 17.4 points. For those of you unfamiliar with IQ scoring -- this is substantial. Much hay is made over far lesser IQ rises and falls. Question the whole IQ model of intelligence? Join the club. What's notable is that these findings suggest that IQ isn't stable (as has always been thought) but deeply influenced by the social setting of the environment.
Not surprisingly, this study is stirring up controversy in the conference rooms of America, the places where adults meet to team build, brainstorm, and make key strategic decisions. But I couldn't help thinking about what this research meant for the places where our children go to team build, brainstorm and well, take standardized tests: the modern classroom.
The downside of reading groups?
Watching my 12-year-old daughter struggle to figure out what she needs to concentrate gives me picture of how these principles may play out in real life. Like many kids nowadays, she never much liked school, but she loved learning. Her traditional but none-too-orderly classrooms in elementary school didn't capture her interest. Mostly she complained of "annoying boys" and kids who talked, the constant interruptions, the shifting of focus. Gradually I've learned that she's a) distractible in a group setting, b) competitive, and c) a deep, conscientious learner in the right context. I'm sure she'd be one of those test takers whose IQ plummets (right along with her mom).
There's thinking, learning, concentrating and all of these are difficult in a classroom where personalities, rivalries, self-consciousness can impinge on the task at hand. In light of this study even the benign reading groups (each with their own ranking within the class) might lower cognitive capacities for some students. The research also calls into question the toll that competitive settings have on learning. For some kids, it's no doubt motivating. But for some kids it's probably a distraction that deters their concentration. (I would be especially curious if this stupifying effect is worse for adolescents, who are particularly bothered by social ranking.)
Group think = intellectual funk?
The study doesn't only call into doubt the rankings of children in more traditional classrooms but certain popular assumptions of progressive education as well. In the crunchiest classrooms, kids are forever working in groups on projects, solving problems and inventing solutions in the form of recycled metropoli and mathematical marble runs. But if working in groups lowers some people's IQs then perhaps group work shouldn't be the primary path to improved academic performance. The study also may have implications for teaching girls and boys. Interestingly, women in the study were more influenced by the group setting -- they represented 11 of the 14 so-called low performers, while the men represented 10 of the 13 high performers. The researchers wouldn't hazard a guess as to why but one possibility is that women's heightened social awareness (yeah yeah we're trading in stereotypes but humor me, it's distracting when you judge me so harshly) --- um, um -- could be blocking the airways of concentration.
It's just the beginning of a field of research that will continue to probe the connections between our cognitive and emotional mind. In the meantime, it's worth wondering how many kids feel their IQs plummeting as they cross the threshold into their classrooms.
Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Every day in the U.S., large numbers of children go hungry. A report by the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC), for example, found that, in 2010, nearly one in four U.S. households with children struggled to afford food. Another FRAC report documents the links between poverty, lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and poor health status.
The health of low-income kids is being jeopardized further by school budget shortfalls — in surprising and disturbing ways, according to an article by The Bay Citizen's environmental health editor, Katharine Mieszkowski.
In her report, Mieszkowski compares physical fitness outcomes at Cesar Chavez elementary School in San Francisco's Mission District, and at Sycamore Valley elementary school in Danville, a wealthy Bay Area suburb.
At the Danville school, 83 percent of fifth graders passed the statewide physical fitness test, receiving high scores on six different fitness measurements. At Cesar Chavez, not a single fifth grader received healthy scores on all six measurements. Further analysis by The Bay Citizen found that fitness performance correlates to student income across Bay Area elementary schools. While none of the students at Sycamore Valley have incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 85 percent of students at Cesar Chavez do.
It's easy to account for the difference in fitness outcomes at the two schools. The schools are not far from each other geographically, but worlds apart in every other way. At Sycamore Valley, for example, a "physical education specialist" helps kids train for the fitness test. All 21 elementary schools in the San Ramon school district, where Sycamore Valley is located, have such specialists. In contrast, San Francisco's 76 elementary schools share 15 physical education specialists, so Cesar Chavez elementary has to wait it's turn for a small fraction of a specialist's time.
But the differences between the two schools go deeper. At Sycamore Valley, parents pitch in to pay for movement classes for kindergarteners and to buy equipment, like new basketball hoops. The school is located next to a lush park that offers athletic fields and a basketball court, and Danville's safe, wooded streets and large backyards provide plenty of safe open spaces for kids to run and play.
At Cesar Chavez, in contrast, PE classes are taught by classroom teachers on the school's fenced-in black top. There are no rims on the basketball nets and, given the many poor and homeless families at the school, donations to school programs are scant. There are no fields or parks near the school, just busy urban streets.
It's not news that across the country, budget cuts are hurting schools and that schools in low-income areas — where resources are stretched and parents can't afford to make up for financial shortfalls — are often hit the hardest. It's not news — but even in these worst of times, it's shocking to see the very real impact of these inequities on children's lives. With obesity and diabetes rates on the rise and growing evidence of a connection between physical fitness and academic success, we can't afford to neglect kids' health, no matter how tight budgets are. Unhealthy kids grow up, in many cases, to be unhealthy adults and by failing them, we're jeopardizing their futures and creating a health emergency that threatens us all.
By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor
Every year in January, a few of us at GreatSchools board a plane and fly to Milwaukee. A boondoggle it’s ain’t. Wisconsin can rightly boast no end of charms (cheese, the Packers, breathtaking lakes and national forests, cheese), but jetting there in winter probably isn't on anyone's list of luxury business trips. The day before we left, my San Francisco office mates were sending dire emails – and some ribbing – about the sub-zero temperatures and snowstorm forecasted to arrive just as we did. “Hold onto your nose!” someone wrote before I left.
So why do we pack ourselves into our parkas for such a frigid school field trip? Because that’s when GreatSchools’ co-sponsor’s Milwaukee’s annual school fair, held at the height of the city’s school shopping season. For several years, GreatSchools’ has had a satellite office in Milwaukee (as we do in Washington D.C.), which happens to has one of the most challenging and complicated school systems in the country, a crazy quilt composed of hundreds of public charters, independent charters, virtual charters, public schools, and private schools. If you learn how to use the laudatory Milwaukee Parental Choice Program voucher system to your advantage, you can keep your children out of a failing school and find them a spot in a great one. At the school fair, we talk to parent after worried but devoted parent about how to navigate this labyrinth to get to the pot of gold.
And that’s why we go to the Milwaukee school fair (and others throughout the year), as well as tour several of the city's schools. True to our name, we are there to support parents in their mission to make sure their child gets a great education. They need the support. Like so many parents in America today, they find their kids growing up in a different world than they grew up in. You no longer send your children to your local public school and call it a day. Why? Because the school your child was assigned might be about to be shut down, or be failing your child with subpar classes, or be dangerous. As a parent today, you need to moonlight as an educational advocate for your child. No easy task. Particularly if you’re a working parent with one or two or three jobs, who is also struggling to ensure your kids are clothed and fed. Trying to make sure they get a quality education? Not a given.
But just when you begin to despair that the educational system is broken – that millions of kids are being sacrificed at the altar of a struggling economy, slashed budgets and adult infighting – then you meet parents who show up at the fair because they're fiercely determined to make sure their child doesn’t slip through the cracks. This determination makes all the difference.
You offer them your best advice. Even as an editor at GreatSchools, I have to remind myself to follow in my ongoing struggle to find great schools for my six and 14 year old kids:
1) Figure out what you want. This isn’t always easy to be clear about what you really want for your child. So make a list of what’s important to you – for your child and family. (e.g. Do I need a school that is close and ok or are you willing to make the drive for a better school? Would my child thrive in small or big classes? Do I want religious or non-denominational school? Uniforms or no uniforms?)
2) Let GreatSchools help. Go to our website and after studying test scores and reading parent reviews of top schools in your district, narrow your search to about three to four schools.
3) Go to the school. This might be the hardest feat to pull off if you’re a overtaxed, working parent. But all the test scores and parent reviews in the world won’t tell you if this school is a fit for your child (one size does not fit all – even for children in the same family) until you step foot inside. What do you see when you get there? Is the staff warm and open to you visiting? Are there signs of learning, maybe art, on the walls? Do the students look happy and engaged? Would you want to spend your days there? (Here's a list of questions to ask and what to look for when visiting.)
Until I landed in Milwaukee, I hadn’t realized this trip is a boondoggle – getting the chance to meet thousands of dedicated teachers, principals, parents, and kids. Sure I never sipped margaritas on a golden-sanded beach. But I don’t tan. Besides, it’s not really that cold in Milwaukee. In fact, there was no lack of warmth at the school fair – at least if you’re talking about the people.
By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
I played violin as a kid. And I was fantastic – at least, I thought I was. My clear memory is of childhood greatness, the next Hilary Hahn. My mom begs to differ, however. "No," she told me recently at a family event. "You really weren’t very good, it was just a really positive, experimental type of class." Huh. It’s hard to reconcile her version with my memory. Probably because the teacher kept telling me how great I was.
And that, in a nutshell, is a problem in schools today – at least according to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work is based on a growing area of research on how good and bad praise affects a child’s motivation.
For decades, schools have been all about building self-esteem and handing out "empty praise." 'You’re so smart,' was the ultimate accolade, while 'A for effort' was like second prize in a beauty contest. But a growing body of research is making clear that adults' good intentions to bolster kids' self-esteem is resulting in a generation of kids who are "praise junkies," afraid to try new challenges that could jeopardize their head-of-the-class reps. It’s the unspecific, over-the-top ("You’re so smart!" "You’re the best!") praise that can hinder kids' education, while specific praise for taking risks and tackling difficult tasks ("You worked so hard on that!") helps kids enjoy challenges and be more successful.
A new article in the Washington Post documents how this research is now being understood:
"Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.
Brain imaging shows how this is true, how connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills."
As the Washington Post reports, based on this research educators at a handful of schools across the country are experimenting with new forms of praise that encourages risk-taking and learning from failure. Teachers at a Virginia middle school gave their students a primer on brain development to help the kids understand that they learn better by making new connections and solving problems on their own. Teachers went on to modify their instruction methods, including how and what they praised – curbing their enthusiasm and replacing it with patience while kids work out things on their own. Teachers also were sure to give specific approbation for hard work and effort.
Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee cites another drawback to general/over-praising: self-assessments that are way off (like mine, with my now questionable violin skills). The Washington Post article includes an anecdote Rhee shares about her kids: "[Rhee] often recounts a story about how her daughters’ many soccer trophies are warping their sense of their athletic abilities. Her daughters 'suck at soccer,' she said in a radio interview last January. 'We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things,' Rhee said."
Do you think your kids are victims of empty praise at home or school?
I recently heard this story from a 14-year-old middle schooler I’ll call Alex, who along with a few other nervous teens, were being interviewed at a private high school in San Francisco. As is standard practice, part of the interview requires prospective students to write a short essay in response to a writing prompt. As several middle schoolers were frantically scribbling their best prose under pressure, Alex glanced over at another boy sitting next to him to see what he was writing. The essay question was: What makes you happiest?
Alex said that the other student wrote something to the effect of: “I am happiest when I’m doing community service.” Everyone listening to Alex’s story met it with no end of eye-rolling and guffawing. What 14-year-old boy would rather be working in a soup kitchen or pulling weeds in a community garden when he could be kicking a soccer ball, playing a video game or just hanging out with friends? Plus, we could picture the boy being prepped at home by his parents, telling him that if he wants to land a spot in the school, then along with stellar grades and test scores, he’s got to prove a history of helping.
Start 'em when they're young
A colleague told me that at her daughter’s middle school, the high school guidance counselor tells parents to have their children begin community service as young as possible – ideally no later than the sixth grade. The counselor explained that admission directors are more impressed by kids who seem genuinely involved in community service rather than simply volunteering to pad their high school resume.
But if young kids are being told to do it because it gives them a better shot at getting into the school of their choice, then isn’t the volunteerism done for the same calculated reasons as if they started volunteering later on? And just what are we telling our kids about doing good for others if, ultimately, the reason is so they can get something for themselves (entry into a private school). Yet I believe strongly in volunteerism; it's part of the contract of belonging to a community. Starting with your own family and working outward to your neighborhood, city, state, and country, you’re obligated to give back to the community that gives so much to you. In a family, a child should do chores so that he learns that a community only works well when everyone donates time and talent. At home, he gives back by doing the dishes and taking out the trash. In his community, he gives back by volunteering to work at the local homeless shelter.
How to be a good human
Besides, plenty of valuable lessons are learned when a young person does something for others, not because he’s getting an allowance or a perk, but because it’s the right thing to do. If he’s donating his services to an organization that helps those in need, he just might learn to be more empathetic and generous and grateful for the life his parents have worked hard to give him. Compassion, gratitude, and generosity are all character traits essential for becoming a good human being.
My own son does community service by volunteering at our local farmers market, where he works with a farm family who are close friends of mine. It took no small amount of prodding on my part to get my son to trudge down the street on Saturday mornings when he could be sleeping in.
Stepping outside of yourself
The family is in fact doing my son a service by letting him work with them: they’re teaching him the value of honest labor and of being part of a successful enterprise. They put up with him as he learns to quickly count change, cut fruit samples, and stop checking his cell phone during working hours. Why did I push him to do this? It wasn't because of school applications. I wanted him to learn to step outside his solipsistic teenage world, to become more part of the world. Plus, once I started (as an adult) volunteering for my community, I have found it one of the most satisfying parts of my life. No surprisingly, my son, who started out begrudgingly donating his time – to say the least – now loves working at the market.
If seen in the best light, without cynicism, maybe that’s why high schools want kids who’ve volunteered. Maybe they're as aware as well as any parent that most tweens and teens would rather be trolling Facebook than picking up trash. But by making students do something for others, they’ll be getting kids who have worked their moral muscles and who will be better trained to continue doing so as high schoolers and adutls. So parents, if you haven’t already, get your kids into that soup kitchen. Whatever the initial motivation, the rewards are manifest.
By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting in 1999, school officials mandated clear backpacks as a safety precaution. Schools in a handful of districts around the country followed suit. In the wake of tragedy, schools panic and do their best to redouble their efforts to ensure kids’ safety. It’s hard to blame them. But do these knee-jerk safety rules provide much (or any) security?
School safety is an ongoing and very real concern. Last week, news broke of a 15-year-old Brownsville, TX boy who was shot by police. The 8th grader brought a (very realistic looking) pellet gun to school. That story is still unfurling, with complicated questions about the boy’s weapon and the police’s actions. Yesterday, an 18-year-old Houston high school student shot a classmate at school. Like the Columbine school shootings, these tragedies again bring to the surface the nationwide question about how to make our schools safe.
And again, school officials are instituting rules that students must bring only clear backpacks to school. After yesterday’s shooting at North Forest High School, the Superintendent is calling for clear backpacks for all students. That high school, however, already has metal detectors. The metal detectors are reportedly easy to avoid either by coming when they’re not turned on or using a side entrance, rendering them ineffective. But will clear backpacks succeed where metal detectors (or other measures) fail? But what if a weapon were simply hidden in a pencil case/binder/extra sweatshirt inside the clear backpack?
Clear backpacks aren’t alone in the arena of well-intentioned but questionable safety rules. At a middle school in Houston, TX, students are permitted to bring only factory-sealed water bottles to school. The intent is to keep kids from bringing alcohol (disguised as water or other drinks) to school. A worthy goal, of course, but I’ve already thought of three ways to evade this rule. (Plus, such an environmentally unfriendly rule seems particularly inappropriate in an educational setting.)
Rules such as this seem well-intentioned but not well thought out. What do you think?
by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
I attended an alternative high school where students received evaluations instead of grades, so before my own kids got to high school, I didn't know what parents meant when they talked about the virtues of AP versus honor classes, or the complicated calculations that allow students to earn GPA's that top 4.0.
Now that two of my children are in high school, I understand what AP courses are, but I'm still mystified by the educational philosophy that underlies them. My son loved his AP World History course last year — despite the AP exam — because he had an inspired teacher who didn't simply teacher her students how to take the test, but shared with them her love of history. But to do well on the exam itself required hours of rote memorization and last minute cramming, which everyone knows is antithetical to truly learning a subject. At my other son's school, which prides itself on the number of AP courses it offers, many students stuff their schedules with AP classes in a frantic effort to jack up their GPA's as high as possible — foregoing sleep and threatening their physical and emotional health in the process.
Many educators, parents and students question the value of the AP curriculum, and some San Francisco high schools have elected not to offer AP courses anymore, according to a recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle. Others, including teachers who teach AP courses themselves, worry about the pressure AP courses create on students (see video). The College Board, which created the AP curriculum, is currently revamping the AP exams — in response, at least in part, to such concerns. The new AP exams will include less material, and require more conceptual thinking and less memorization.
While these are positive developments, they aren't likely to stop the academic arms race that so many students are engaged in, since many colleges and universities only accept students with stratospheric GPA's —as the Chronicle article points out. No wonder so many of our kids are stressed out!
But maybe I'm missing something. What's your experience — and your child's — with AP courses?